Movie trailers seem to be everywhere, not only in theaters, but also on TV, social media, YouTube, TV screens at the gas pump, etc. At the dawn of the film age in the early 20th century, movie trailers were only seen in theaters before a film. They were very crude by today’s standards, with too much talk, melodramatic music and sensational headlines superimposed on the screen. But they’re fun to view through the prism of today’s culture. We spent time looking through some vintage movie trailers for popular films from the 1920s and 1930s. They shine light on American society and morals of the time — at least according to Hollywood.
10. The Jazz Singer (1927)
A reason to celebrate the film: The man in the trailer’s opening touts the first “talking” motion picture in film history. A reason to cringe at this trailer: Star Al Jolson liberally applies makeup for his “blackface” performance, scenes excruciatingly painful to watch today.
9. Female (1933)
This is a classic example of a so-called “Pre-Code” Hollywood film. Before the enforcement of the Hays Code of censorship standards in 1934, many films featured topics and scenes that were extremely risqué for the era, dealing with prostitution, drug use, abortion and homosexuality. And there were plenty of scantily clad women looking for a one-night stand. In Female, Ruth Chatterton plays an auto company owner who seduces her employees and them dumps them. The copy in the trailer says it all: “Most women hide their desires. Here’s the story of one who openly flaunts them … Female shows how modern women hunt men … And what they do after they capture them!”
8. Wings (1927)
The first movie to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, this film starred Clara Bow, regarded as the leading sex symbol of the 1920s. The fight at the 10-second mark in the trailer is ridiculously high intensity; the scene immediately afterward of soldiers walking in to the room as Bow changes clothes was crazily risqué for the era.
7. Dracula (1931)
The narrator says, “Dracula — the very mention of the name brings to mind things to evil, so fantastic, so degrading, you wonder if it isn’t all … a nightmare.” Yet there is not one remotely scary or menacing scene in the trailer. How is that possible? Could they not have thrown a couple of scares in there, or was the name Dracula enough to draw people to the theaters. Very baffling.
6. Scarface (1932)
And people complain today’s films are too violent. Co-produced by Howard Hughes, censors tried to tone down the violence in this gangster flick. But Hughes told director Howard Hawks, “Screw the Hays Office — make it as realistic and grisly as possible.” It inspired the equally violent Scarface (1983) starring Al Pacino. This doesn’t look like the original trailer, but rather a fan-made trailer, but the scenes give you a taste of the movie.
5. Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)
The trailer melodramatically tells us, “Tarzan the Ape Man knows only the laws of the jungle — to seize what he adores!” In this case, what Tarzan adores is Jane, the daughter of an explorer. It’s to be expected that the actor who plays Tarzan, Johnny Weismuller, a former Olympic swimming champion, appears in one tense trailer scene swimming away from hungry crocodiles.
4. Red-Headed Woman (1932)
Here’s another classic example of a Pre-Code Hollywood film. In the trailer, Jean Harlow chugs liquor and seduces several men. The film’s racy content earned it a ban in several countries. Apologies for the Spanish subtitles; it’s hard to believe this is the only available trailer for this classic.
3. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Regarded as one of the greatest war films of all time, this is what Saving Private Ryan might have looked like if it had been made almost 100 years ago.
2. It Happened One Night (1934)
When Clark Gable fails to hitch a ride for himself and co-star Claudette Colbert, she flashes some leg and a car screeches to a halt to pick the couple up. Fun fact: the driver, Alan Hale, was the father of Alan Hale Jr., best known for playing the “Skipper” on Gilligan’s Island. By the way, It Happened One Night is one of only three films in history to win Oscars for best picture, actor, actress, director and screenplay. The other two were One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs.
1. Metropolis (1927)
This is a restored version of the trailer for the 1927 classic, the first full-length science-fiction feature. This is what sci-fi writers thought the future would look like in 2026.